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Biting the Bamboo: Eight Years in Yunnan.

By Tan Lai Yong (In collaboration with ITE College Central). Singapore: Institute of Technical Education, 2004, 82 pp.
Review by Dr Ng Peh Cheng

In 1996, Dr Tan Lai Yong, a medical doctor, and his wife left the comfort zone of urban Singapore for their mission in Yunnan, a province in southwestern China. He is a lecturer at Kunming Medical College and his work involves training farmers to be doctors.  

In the words of the author, the book is not "an encyclopedic account of life in Yunnan" but a glimpse of what "I have seen through my own untrained urban eyes."  "Untrained," but the written record of his observations and experiences during those eight years has made the book an essential training text for those heeding a calling to community development or answering a calling to tent-making ministry in another culture. Uninformed about cross-cultural communication, a foreigner working in Yunnan may "mistake sugar cane for bamboo - can often see or interpret things wrongly" (p. 2).

What does it take to serve in another culture?  It requires a heart that is compassionate and a mind that is humble to observe and accommodate to differences.  The principle is vividly illustrated throughout the collection of stories in the book.  The first story he recollected was the work amongst the leprosy patients. The care that he and his staff showered upon these patients who are rejected by society was a testimony of unconditional love that could elicit a response of surprise, "You people are the first normal people that actually drink the tea I offer" (p. 7). "Leprosy is a badly misunderstood disease and the patients are cruelly stigmatised" (p. 6) and Lai Yong's daughter who was a member of the "staff" learned quickly to dismiss the myth at a young age. The Tan family works as a team and devoted to the calling entrusted to them.

The habit of carrying one's cultural baggage to a foreign field is inevitable but it can hinder effectiveness when personal values conflict with that of the host culture. The author's value of keeping to a schedule was put to a gruelling test when he reluctantly agreed to visit a patient who did not have a prior "appointment." Readers can sense his frustrating experience with the "unreliable" transportation system to reach the remote destination.  He felt time was wasted but with humility to view the concept of time from a cross-cultural perspective, he gained wisdom, "As a doctor out here, I am learning that interruptions may well be the bedrock of learning and serving."  His "wasted" trip became a timely lesson and positive example to his trainees on "how they must be prepared to go out and see patients when the call came in" (p. 44). Problems and difficulties are a part of the package Dr Tan has to wrestle with when working in a foreign field,  

Integrity is a slippery thing. Though I came to Yunnan as a community development aid worker, I had faced embarrassing situations where locals  thought I was making big bucks through the projects I ran.  Some assumed that I had a big expense account similar to executives from big international  aid agencies.  It was often fruitless to try and defend oneself (p.24).   

The stories of his cross-cultural encounter and mission are fascinating to read and the pictures are helpful to gain better insights into the culture of the people. In fact, it is not difficult to have that feeling of being transported to the time and location where each incident took place.  Some of the incidents are hilarious, for example, the "precious toilet" which is convenient to have in the house but to the locals, "This is my home. Why would I want something as smelly and dirty as a toilet in my own house?"  Other incidents offer much teaching on the capabilities of the locals to innovate though deprived of technological advancement. They feed the frogs with a "light bulb" (p. 73) to fatten them for a better market value to supplement their meagre income. Have a brainstorming exercise on the innovative ways of using the bamboo.  Amongst other uses, it is amazing how the bamboo can be used as wine cups and to "feed the dead!" (pp.33-35). According to Dr Tan's two children, the fried bamboo worms taste like "french fries!"

His work in community development has inspired students at the Institute of Technical Education to venture out as community developers outside Singapore. Many have testified that Dr Tan is a role model to them and the community service projects have contributed significantly to their character building and maturity. Perhaps, the youths in the church would like to include overseas community service projects as part of their development to view things and people from God's perspective.

Lai Yong's community medicine service has won international recognition and from his hometown but his view of "success" is aptly summarized in the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Shi (p. 67),

 Go to the people, live among them

 Learn from them. Love them.

 Start with what they know; build on what   they have

 But (for) the best leaders, when their task is accomplished.

 their work is done, the people will remark,

 "We have done it ourselves."  

He and his family have spent eight years in Yunnan and they are looking "forward to a few more enriching years in Yunnan" (p. 2).  His motivation to "press on" must be the love of God in him, "This is Yunnan -  as seen through the eyes of a Singaporean, understood by the mind of a doctor, moved by the love of God" (personal glimpse of Quek Aik Wu).   Here at BGST, we have a glimpse of Lai Yong as a student who is diligent and sincere in following the will of God.


Chapel service on 6 April was taken by Dr Philip Satterthwaite. The service was dedicated to singing of hymns, reading from Psalms and praying.


Chapel speaker on 20 April will be Mr Lewis Lew (MCS, 2005).


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A Blessed Birthday to ...

Mrs Pauline Kwek  11/4

Ms Grace Chng  12/4

Ms Goh Li-Ern  13/4

Elder Yong Teck Meng  14/4

Mdm Grace Yap  14/4

Mr Ng Beng Hong  14/4

Ms Lim Keng Hee  15/4

Ms Chew Chee Kuan  16/4

Ms Low Wai Leng  16/4

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Mr Leong Che Yeong  16/4

Ms Therma Cheung  17/4

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This page is updated on 15 Apr 2005.